Artists of the Western Coasts

We look forward to welcoming our guest Cornish artists to Uillinn for the West meets West exhibition which opens this Friday – 2 June at 6pm – and runs through to 8 July. The three artists are excellent representatives of the vibrant arts scene in Cornwall, which was established from the late 19th century in Newlyn and St Ives and has been burgeoning through the late 20th century and into the 21st, especially with the opening of the spectacularly successful Tate St Ives gallery in 1993.

Header: Looking towards The Land’s End – Cornwall’s beautiful scenery has attracted artists and tourists for over a hundred years (photo by Phoebe Harris). Above: Tate St Ives – opened in 1993 – a spectacularly successful venue for cultural art tourism (photo by http://www.artfund.org)

Our artists are all from the West Penwith peninsula – the furthest landfall in the UK’s westernmost county of Cornwall. Phil Booth, Lamorna, will be showing some of his large sculptural relief constructions. Phil is known for these works but is also a talented landscape designer. His has spent many years teaching design and sculpture in Japan: he has intensively researched the form and meaning of traditional Japanese Gardens in Kyoto and is able to provide a high quality design service for anyone who is planning to construct a Japanese garden, or who might want to introduce Japanese elements into their own gardens.

Above left: Philip Booth. Above right: one of his relief constructions which will be shown at Uillinn – Beach Boulder

Matthew Lanyon sadly passed away while preparing work for our Uillinn exhibition. We will be showing many of his larger paintings (some are seven metres long!), but also some tapestry and a laminated glass piece which will be seen for the first time here in Skibbereen. Matthew’s father – Peter Lanyon – was one of the notable members of the St Ives School of Artists in the mid twentieth century. Peter was a painter and a teacher, and had a strong influence on many artists – not only in Cornwall and the UK but in Ireland as well. Matthew’s Cornish heritage, therefore, is very special in the context of West meets West.

The Late Matthew Lanyon with one of his huge paintings – The Listening Sea

Tony Lattimer lives in Penzance and has his studios and kilns on a beautiful wild acreage close to The Land’s End. His ceramic sculpture is large and visually stunning. Like the other exhibiting artists, he is recognised internationally. Tony has won the prestigious Emilia-Romagna Prize at Premio Faenza International Ceramic Art Competition, Italy twice – in 2005 and 2013. The MIC – International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza – is reputed to be the world’s largest ceramics museum and one of the liveliest art institutions in Italy. Tony has also exhibited at the Tate St Ives and many other UK galleries, and we are pleased that he is able to bring a selection of his new works over to Skibbereen.

Above left: Tony Lattimer preparing work for the kiln in his Land’s End studio. Above right: some of Tony Lattimer’s recent smaller works

Phil Booth and Tony Lattimer will be at the opening, and in the gallery at noon on Saturday 3 June to take part in a panel discussion on the artists’ work. Matthew will also be represented at this event. Please come! The following week – on Saturday 10 June, also at noon, I (Robert Harris) will be giving an illustrated talk titled Chasing the Light – Why the Artists Moved West. I will outline the historic connections and remarkable similarities between the two most westerly peninsulas of Britain and Ireland over a three and a half thousand year timespan, and explore the lives and work of artists who settled in both communities.

While this exhibition focusses on contemporary art from Cornwall it is part of a larger project envisaged by Uillinn (the West Cork Arts Centre). It is hoped that artists from West Cork will visit Cornwall to exhibit their work next year, and that this will become part of a regular cultural exchange between Cork and Cornwall in the future. There is a fascinating story to be told about the artists and craftspeople who arrived in West Cork from the late 1950s onwards and helped found a cosmopolitan, creative and free-thinking community here. Ceramicists, textile designers, printmakers, painters and writers all contributed to the mix. Because of that heritage there are many artists and creative people who continue to be attracted to the area today. Believe me, it’s the most stimulating place to live!

Don’t miss – West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July. Opening at 6pm on Friday 2 June.

Below: stirrings in Ballydehob: in the 1960s potter Christa Reichel and batik artist Nora Golden set up The Flower House as a shop, studio, cafe and haven for artists. “…Word spread that West Cork was a beautiful, creative place waiting to be discovered…” (Alison Ospina – West Cork Inspires) Photo courtesy Andrew Street

Connecting with St Ives

Have you ever met a Zorse? That’s a cross between a zebra and a horse. Probably not… But I have met the lady who invented them (above)! And, by quirky chance, she’s one link between Ireland and the group of artists who formed the ‘St Ives School of Painting’, Cornwall, in the twentieth century. You already know from last week’s post that the forthcoming exhibition in Uillinn, Skibbereen – West meets West, opening on 3 June, celebrates the historic connections and similarities between these two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, explored through the medium of art.

I was pleased to find this poster (produced for the London, Scottish and Midland Railway Company) by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an artist who was born in Ireland but spent most of his long working life in Newlyn, Cornwall

It was the coming of railways from the capital to Cornwall (arriving to Penzance in 1860, and to St Ives in 1877) that opened up the far south-west of Britain to tourists – and to the artists who were drawn to this hitherto remote and unspoiled ‘rural idyll’. They were particularly attracted to the picturesque fishing villages, and rather overlooked the equally interesting and visually dramatic mining communities which were the centre of the county’s economy in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

The picturesque St Ives fishing community as seen in these postcards which served the burgeoning tourist industry in the early 1900s

The first art gallery in St Ives opened in 1887, and an art school was opened the following year. By the time the photographs on the postcards above were taken, there were ten private schools of painting in the town. The development of St Ives as a national (perhaps even international) centre for ‘modern art’ began after the Great War when Ben Nicholson and Christopher (Kit) Wood visited and ‘discovered’ the seafarer and naïve artist Alfred Wallis, who spent his retirement years painting nautical scenes on old fish boxes, driftwood and even scraps of cardboard.  They found his small cottage (now marked by a plaque) filled with these images, many of them (to the artists’ horror) attached to the walls by nails driven through their centres.

Art in St Ives, Cornwall: upper left – Christopher Wood self portrait; upper right – Alfred Wallis The Blue Ship; lower – Ben Nicholson Mural for the Festival of Britain

As the century progressed and another European war loomed, remote St Ives became home to many artists – some conscientious objectors, others just escapists. It made for a cosmopolitan mix. Ceramicists Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji arrived from Japan in the 1920s. Many potters from all over the world were apprenticed at the Leach Pottery (which exists today in St Ives and is also now a museum), and spread Leach’s style and beliefs. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Nicholson (then the centre of the London based British avant-garde movement) returned with his wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, followed by their friend Russian Constructivist pioneer Naum Gabo and his wife Miriam. To quote the history pages of the St Ives Society of Artists:

…Soon Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, eastern philosophy, true naïveté and the English marine tradition were being discussed behind the blackout curtains of the town. The place was a hotbed of creativity and its importance grew…

Post-war, the artists’ community expanded, and changed. The names we now remember from the mid-century years include Sven Berlin, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, John Wells, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and many others. A good insight of what life was like there is given in the entertaining autobiographical notes of Irish artist Breon O’Casey, son of playwright Sean O’Casey:

…One day, watching television, sometime in the late fifties, I saw a film about Alfred Wallis, a primitive painter who had lived at St Ives in Cornwall. The film showed St Ives and the studios of some of the artists living there. I realised it was the place for me… Ah St Ives! In those days still a working fishing port, with tourism and art only tolerated, but kindly tolerated. The relief of mingling with other crazy artists was enormous. It was literally as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. This is exactly how it felt. One must remember the strong antagonism to modern art then, and the nervous energy used up resisting it… One was with a group of people who were hoping to make a living from their art and indeed some were professional artists. That times were hard mattered little. If no one has much money it doesn’t matter. And I certainly never experienced the depths of poverty and the necessary determination to survive it, that my father had experienced. Nor indeed did I face the privations that, as one reads, Matisse faced, never mind those suffered by the true early warriors, Van Gogh and Gauguin… My studio was in a ramshackle, wooden structure tucked in behind other similar studios facing out over Porthmeor beach to the wide Atlantic. I slept in a curtained off alcove at one end – illegally – and in the winter the thud of the great waves would shake the whole crazy structure like a dog shaking a rat. It was kept standing by the law of inertia which says: if an object has been in one place for a number of years, it will resist, of itself, natural physical forces trying to move it…

Breon O’Casey in 2009: he died in Cornwall in 2011. Right – O’Casey’s Trio

Peter Lanyon was one of the most influential artists in the St Ives School during his working life. He was a native of the town – born in The Red House, Bellyars, St Ives in 1918. Both his parents came from families who were connected with mining. Lanyon was a teacher and an artist. Irish artist Tony O’Malley (1913 – 2003) received his only formal art education from Peter Lanyon and, after Lanyon’s death in 1964, O’Malley dedicated all his work to his friend and mentor. Irish sculptor Conor Fallon (1939 – 2007), a friend of O’Malley and O’Casey, was also inspired by Peter Lanyon’s work and spent some years in St Ives before moving back to Kinsale. Lanyon claimed that he sought in his work to ‘get under the skin’ of his native county and explored it by going underground in the mines and flying over it in a glider. Lanyon died as a result of a gliding accident; the work of one of his sons – the late Matthew Lanyon – will feature in the West meets West exhibition in June this year.

Top: Bojewyan Farms by Peter Lanyon (courtesy Sheila Lanyon). Lower: Lanyon, left, in 1961 – photo by Ida Kar; Irish artists Tony O’Malley (centre) and Conor Fallon (right)

This post is a necessarily brief historical summary of the St Ives artists and their influences on the annals of art in the islands of Britain and Ireland. Many important names have been omitted. But we cannot leave the subject without mentioning Sven Berlin – and coming back to the Zorse!

‘The Dark Monarch’ – a fictionalised novel by Sven Berlin that characterised and defamed many of his fellow artists in the St Ives colony – they drummed him out of town! Right – Juanita Casey, Berlin’s second wife (photo Dolmen Press)

Sven Berlin (1911 – 1999) was a colourful and controversial addition to the St Ives group. Born in London, he came to Cornwall in 1938, meeting with Nicholson and Hepworth and writing the first book on the life of naïve artist Alfred Wallis. While there he met Juanita (1925 – 2012), who was named by her uncle after his favourite circus lion. Her mother, an Irish Traveller, had died in childbirth and her father, an English Romany, had given her up for adoption. She joined a circus at the age of 13, beginning a lifelong obsession with horses. She was a writer, artist and poet and – later – a horse breeder and circus trainer. She spent some years working on boats in Penzance and exhibiting paintings in the Newlyn Gallery, and there she became involved with Sven Berlin; they married in 1953. Soon after, Sven was ostracised from St Ives and they travelled in their Romany caravan to the New Forest and lived for a while in the Shave Green Gypsy community.

Sven Berlin in St Ives, left, and with Juanita and their family in their Gypsy wagon

The marriage broke up when Juanita met and eloped with a groom, Fergus Casey. While with him she trained and rode zebras and embarked on her project to produce the Zorse – apparently unsuccessful.  Her lifestyle was forever Bohemian. Her obituary in the Independent newspaper observes:

…Casey wrote that her children looked upon her “the way steam enthusiasts admire a hissing antique boiler.” Often, she would be the first to admit, her creativity and spontaneity took over from her domestic duties and responsibilities…

Fergus, a journalist, was drowned in Galway and Juanita, with her daughter, Sheba, continued to travel – firstly to Sneem in Co Kerry, and then to Okehampton in Devon, England where she once again joined the circus, as a horsemaster. I met her in Okehampton when she was in her eighties, and was fascinated to listen to many of her incredible stories – although while telling them she was always keeping half an eye on her television set in the corner, which was always on and always tuned in to the horse racing channels!

Below, Juanita Casey, living in Okehampton, Devon, in her eighties and an illustration from her novel  The Selene Horse

Don’t forget! West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July

West meets West

Picturesque Newlyn, Cornwall – the fishing village was the centre of a major art movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

I have been working hard with Uillinn – West Cork Arts Centre‘s fantastic new gallery in Skibbereen – to bring over an exhibition of the work of contemporary Cornish artists, which opens in June. West meets West will be the launch of a continuing programme which sees the art and culture of Cork and Cornwall being shared, to the mutual benefit of all working artists and art lovers – and to residents and visitors.

Greenstone – a canvas by the late Matthew Lanyon, one of Cornwall’s important contemporary artists whose work will be shown at Uillinn in June this year

Why Cornwall and Cork? And, particularly, why these westernmost peninsulas of Ireland and England? Well, as you may have noticed from past posts on this Journal, historic links between the two geographical areas go back a very long way. Starting between three and four thousand years ago copper was mined on Mount Gabriel and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to produce a revolutionary new metal – Bronze. This material was hard enough to make tools and weapons – therefore a practical commodity: also it does not rust. It has, too, been used to make bells for centuries, so its properties include sonority. In fact the word bronze probably originates from the Medieval Latin bronzium, in modern Italian bronzo, meaning ‘bell metal’. Regardless of all this, the important thing we know is that relations between the west of England and the west of Ireland were well enough advanced to set up regular trading between the two outposts in those far-off days.

Tony Lattimer, international award winning ceramic artist based near The Land’s End in Cornwall, whose large ceramic sculptures will be shown in West meets West, Skibbereen, June of this year

In a recent post I alluded to the incredible debt that Cornwall owes to us in West Cork because we gave them their patron saint – Saint Piran. The fact that the gift wasn’t intentional shouldn’t delay us too long: we tied Cape Clear’s Saint (whose Irish name was Ciarán) to a millstone and threw him over a cliff. Instead of meeting his doom he miraculously surfed the millstone across to the Cornish coast, where his landing place – Perranzabuloe – is named after him, and where he is royally celebrated on March 5th every year, with all the zeal that we show to our own St Patrick!

Apart from metal mining and saints, another important connection is shared fishing grounds. From medieval times onwards (and perhaps before) the Cornish fishing fleets put out from Mousehole and Newlyn to follow the pilchard and herring shoals across to Roaringwater Bay. This is really where art comes into our story, as it was the way of life of some of the Cornish fishing communities that attracted artists to that western County of England in the late nineteenth century, once the arrival of the Great Western Railway in Penzance had established the direct connection with London. Newlyn was an early focus, and a young man from Dublin, Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an up and coming young painter in the plein air tradition, made his home there in 1884 and stayed for life. Forbes found in Cornwall a true ‘rural idyll’: an unspoiled countryside where life was simply lived, and a rugged coastline with a magical quality of light. Known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’, he gathered around him like-minded artists who recorded (and perhaps romantically idealised) the way of life of the communities there, and that special quality of the light, in canvasses which are highly admired and respected today.

A preliminary sketch by Stanhope Alexander Forbes for a painting known as On Paul Hill (Paul is the name of a village between Newlyn and Mousehole in Cornwall). Forbes painted in the Plein Air style, out of doors and from real life

I made my home in Cornwall for a number of years, before I decided that I hadn’t come far enough to the west, and followed the pilchards and herring myself to Roaringwater Bay, where I now look down on them from my eyrie in Nead an Iolair (although the shoals are today much diminished). During my years in Cornwall I came to know and respect the stories of the artists from Victorian years up to the present day. The ‘Newlyn School’ which Forbes represented was only one piece of the jigsaw there: we will explore others later. Art is probably Cornwall’s biggest asset. Ever since the opening of the Tate Gallery in St Ives – established there because of that town’s historic links with artists and craftspeople of international repute – ‘art tourism’ has grown to become a major year-round driver of the local economy.

Newlyn old and new: left – Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1900 painting outside Trelyn, Boase Street, Newlyn – my home for 25 years! Right – Newlyn today is Britain’s largest fishing port

Cornwall is home to a number of artists renowned today in the British Isles. I got to know many of them when I lived in Newlyn. Three of them will be exhibiting in Uillinn from 3 June to 8 July this year: Philip Booth, Matthew Lanyon and Tony Lattimer. Their work is large scale, stimulating and mutually complementary: constructions, canvasses and ceramic sculptures. Please make a note of the dates now: this exhibition is important for West Cork and for Cornwall. Please don’t miss it!

Below: Philip Booth, from Lamorna, Cornwall, will be showing a number of his spectacular relief constructions at West meets West, Uillinn, Skibbereen, in June. This one is titled ‘Formed in Running Water’

Formed in Running Water

Raw Material

The art of building: West Cork Arts Centre on opening day

The art of building: West Cork Arts Centre on opening day

On the last day of January (traditionally the last day of winter and St Brigid’s Eve) the new West Cork Arts Centre opened its first exhibition in Skibbereen. We have taken a great interest in this building during its construction: the very strong architecture has aroused a lot of negative comment in the community, but now that it is virtually complete the general view of it seems to be mellowing a little. For my pennyworth this bold, modern insertion into the townscape has provided Skibbereen with a new visual focus and with great potential for a successful future.

A specially commissioned glass sculpture by Michael Ray graces the entrance hall, and incorporates the names of sponsors of the building

A specially commissioned glass sculpture by Michael Ray graces the entrance hall, and incorporates the signatures of sponsors of the building

The name of this new building is Uillinn – it means ‘elbow’, a reference to the angled plan of the building and its cantilevered location over a bend in the Caol Stream that snakes through the town’s back yard. Dublin based Architects Donaghy and Dimond won the international design competition in 2009: have a look at their plans for the building here.

One of the exhibits is titled ‘Flying Colours’ and is a project by the West Cork Education Centre in collaboration with local Primary School children: stairways and circulation spaces in the new centre are alive with colour and creativity. How wonderful that these children can feel they have played such a significant part in this new venture.

The fabric of the building is lively and well considered

The fabric of the building is lively and well considered

This building simmers with potential: the gallery spaces and facilities are impressive and architectural elements are well detailed. Skibbereen has been given a high quality civic building that will last for generations: it’s now got to be used creatively.

Sam Thorne

Sam Thorne

It’s no coincidence that one of the speaking guests at the opening was Sam Thorne, artistic director of the Tate St Ives Gallery in Cornwall. Comparison between West Cornwall and West Cork is inevitable: both regions have a history of attracting artists because of the very particular light that comes from close proximity to the Atlantic coastline. Also, artists have been drawn to these places because of enduring lifestyles that are simple, basic and close to nature. Thorne made the perhaps surprising statement that West Cork is home to more artists per capita than both Paris and London.

'Blinkers' - Angela Fulcher 2015

‘Blinkers’ – Angela Fulcher 2015

Sam Thorne said that having a community of artists contributes all kinds of different aspects to a region. One of the simple ones is tourism. “That’s been a really important thing in St Ives over the past two decades,” he said. “The gallery contributes £11m (€14.6m) every year to the local economy in St Ives – three times that which was anticipated when the gallery opened… So there’s a very real powerful impact that having artists there, having art there, creates for the community.” He added that the St Ives Gallery now needs to extend its buildings and anticipates over £80m coming into the local coffers over the next few years.

tate

Phenomenal success: the Tate Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall

I spent many years in Cornwall and watched the development of the Tate Gallery in St Ives. It has become a year-round tourist destination: in all seasons – and in all weathers – the streets of the little town are crowded with visitors who are, of course, using the local shops, b + bs and restaurants. It has also created problems: overloaded car parks, strained infrastructure. But surely this is better than closed shops and failing businesses?

Of course, Skibbereen is not St Ives – and our Arts Centre doesn’t have the backing of a body like the Tate, with its enormous resources of historical art. But there are great possibilities nevertheless: Ireland has a wonderful art heritage, much of which is seldom seen outside of the big city galleries. And there are strong links between Irish artists and Britain which could be delved into. Think of the Newlyn School artists – Alexander Stanhope Forbes and Norman Garstin were both Irish; Cornwall was also home to Breon O’Casey and Tony O’Malley. Other artists moved from Cornwall to the west of Ireland, including Nancy Wynne-Jones, Conor Fallon and – mentioned above – Michael Ray.

Impressive gallery spaces call for dynamic works

Impressive gallery spaces call for dynamic works

The St Ives Tate works so well because it is able to show the ‘big names’ – but it also encourages young and local artists, whose output often interacts with the historically established works. There is no reason why the Skibbereen centre couldn’t build on similar links: wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see paintings by the likes of Jack B Yeats, Paul Henry, Sara Purser or Daniel Maclise on our doorstep – complimented, of course, by the very best of home grown talent? The ‘big names’ would be the crowd-pullers – at least initially: these are the building blocks for forging a lasting reputation.

headphones on

Works in progress: the centre contains studios and workshops

The new building still awaits its official opening: this will happen in the summer and the President of Ireland – Michael D Higgins – will have that honour: a scoop for Skibbereen! The Board of the West Cork Arts Centre – and the sponsors and donors – have moved mountains to realise the vision of this building. Now it’s down to creativity and dynamism from the team – and to enthusiasm and encouragement from us, the visitors, whose support is vital to this building’s future success.

quirky